Having just returned from Paris and another trip to the French Open, I find myself thinking quite a bit about the latest battle in the remarkable rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. For the third year in a row, Nadal and Federer clashed at Roland Garros. Two years ago, they met in the semifinals. Last year they faced other in the final. And so it was again this year as the two best players on the planet took each other on in the title match.
On all three occasions, Nadal toppled Federer in four sets and now the left-handed Spaniard has secured three straight French Open championships. He joins Bjorn Borg as the only player to win three or more Roland Garros titles in a row. Why has Nadal won six of seven clay court meetings with Federer, and how has he managed to beat such a towering big match player thrice on the Paris clay? To me, the answer is not that complicated. The recurring image that keeps flashing in my mind is that of Federer’s contact point off both sides during these matches.
Time and again, Nadal forces Federer to play those impossibly high balls off both sides. The pattern which works best for Nadal is his heavy topspin crosscourt forehand which goes to Federer’s backhand. Federer is not confident trying to respond with slice backhands, so he goes for the topspin backhand and misses constantly. Otherwise, the Swiss makes a short reply, which Nadal demolishes with his inside-out, flattened-out forehand. Some critics contend that Federer needs to force the issue more, to attack with more conviction and regularity, to take Nadal out of his comfort zone.
That is easier said than done. Nadal’s shots are bounding so high and often landing so deep that it is an arduous task for Federer to find a way to get in. He did selectively serve-and-volley at unexpected moments. He did try some variation of his own from the baseline, angling his backhand sharply crosscourt to take Nadal off the court when the Spaniard was looking for Federer to go to his backhand. Federer also attempted some high trajectory topspin shots which forced Nadal to reach up uncomfortably for his two-hander, and the Spaniard missed his share of those.
The bottom line is that Nadal largely controls the tempo in his clay court duels with Federer. Much was made out of Federer failing to convert 16 of 17 break point opportunities, with ten of those missed opportunities occurring in the first set. Many felt that Federer might have prevailed had he broken Nadal in the opening set and thus moved out in front. But last year, he did take his early chances, sweeping through the first set 6-1. Nadal still came back to take the next three sets. Federer needed that first set in many ways while Nadal did not.
And yet, Federer still came back gamely to win a hard fought second set. He was back to one set all, and in essence a brand new, best of three set match had begun. But Federer was clearly drained by nearly two hours of strenuous rallies with his adversary. He was thoroughly outplayed the last two sets by a stronger and more durable opponent. Nadal closed out that contest with growing assurance, winning comfortably 6-3,4-6,6-3,6-4. He won 16 of his last 18 service points after saving a break point in the second game of the fourth set.
So now Nadal holds an 8-4 lead in this career series. On surfaces other than clay, Federer has a 3-2 edge. The hope here is that Nadal finds a way to finish this year with more energy and effectiveness. A year ago, after losing the Wimbledon final to Federer, Nadal never made it to another final the rest of the year. Federer lost only one more match after Wimbledon, and the rivalry between these two great players fizzled. They had played each other five times through Wimbledon in 2006, but met only once more as the Spaniard lost his edge.
I don’t expect anything like that to happen again this year. Federer is surely the big favorite to win a fifth consecutive Wimbledon crown, and he will be the favorite at the U.S. Open as well. In New York, he will go for a fourth title in a row. But Nadal is fully capable of making it back to the Wimbledon final, and is long overdue to show us his best stuff in New York. If Nadal does not get injured or exhausted— those are two big ifs– he has an opportunity to chase Federer down to the wire for the 2007 No. 1 world ranking.
Federer is nearly five years older than Nadal. He will be 26 in August. Nadal has just turned 21. So there is still at least a three year window for these two to stage some classics, as long as Nadal plays the kind of hard court tennis that brought him the Masters Series title at Indian Wells back in March. I hope over these next few years that this rivalry will grow into something of lasting value and become a great historical series.
The estimable Australians Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall had a stirring series starting in 1963 (when Laver turned pro) extending into the 1970’s with some classic contests, most notably their final round epic at Dallas in 1972 when Rosewall recouped from 3-5 down in the final set tie-break to win four points in a row for the title at the WCT Finals. The left-handed Laver’s explosive game blended beautifully with Rosewall’s pure shot making and incomparable sliced backhand.
From 1978-81, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe celebrated a sparkling rivalry that ended at 7-7. Like Federer and Nadal now, they towered above the field in their time. They met in back-to-back finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1980 and 1981, with Borg overcoming McEnroe in the 1980 Wimbledon final 1-6,7-5,6-3,6-7(16-18),8-6. I am among those who believe that was the greatest tennis match of all time. It was always a delight to watch these two men of sharply contrasting styles in combat against each other, with McEnroe always coming forward and Borg countering with his astonishing passing shots.
In a very similar way, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert captured the public imagination in their unsurpassed series from 1973-88. These two all time greats played each other no fewer than 80 times in that span, with Navratilova victorious 43 times. They battled against each other 14 times in major finals. Like Borg and McEnroe, a big battle of wills and contrasting playing methodology was showcased whenever Evert and Navratilova clashed as Martina imposed her supreme attacking style while Chris answered with her precise and unerring ground game and glorious passing shots.
From 1989-2002, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi brought their appealingly different personalities and playing styles into the arena against each other. Agassi had perhaps the best return of serve of all time while Sampras was arguably the finest server the game has ever seen. Sampras was the premier serve-and-volleyer and Agassi was the quintessential baseliner. Sampras was victorious in 20 of 34 meetings, defeating Agassi twice at Wimbledon and four times (including three finals) at the U.S. Open. Whenever they played, the atmosphere was electric.
Will Nadal and Federer reach the lofty level of these other historic rivalries? Only time will tell. They have moved into the fourth year of their series, and they have met in majors for three straight years. They play the game so differently that it is always fascinating to watch them probing in their duels. Federer’s elegant artistry is always challenged by Nadal’s speed and topspin wizardry. It will be up to Nadal to take it all to another level. He must prove that he belongs on the other surfaces, show that he can earn the right to play Federer more often on faster courts, demonstrate that he has the necessary versatility. I believe he will.